morning. I wrote in chalk on the coach-house doors that I had come back for the horse and gig, and driven off; that I could arouse nobody, and should return soon.”
“But you’ll consider, ma’am, that we couldn’t see that till it got daylight.”
“True,” she said, and though vexed at first she had too much sense to blame them long or seriously for a devotion to her that was as valuable as it was rare. She added with a very pretty grace, “Well, I really thank you heartily for taking all this trouble; but I wish you had borrowed anybody’s horses but Mr. Boldwood’s.”
“Dainty is lame, miss,” said Coggan. “Can ye go on?”
“It was only a stone in her shoe. I got down and pulled it out a hundred yards back. I can manage very well, thank you. I shall be in Bath by daylight. Will you now return, please?”
She turned her head — the gateman’s candle shimmering upon her quick, clear eyes as she did so — passed through the gate, and was soon wrapped in the embowering shades of mysterious summer boughs. Coggan and Gabriel put about their horses, and, fanned by the velvety air of this July night, retraced the road by which they had come.
“A strange vagary, this of hers, isn’t it, Oak?” said Coggan, curiously.
“Yes,” said Gabriel, shortly.
“She won’t be in Bath by no daylight!”
“Coggan, suppose we keep this night’s work as quiet as we can?”
“I am of one and the same mind.”
“Very well. We shall be home by three o’clock or so, and can creep into the parish like lambs.”
Bathsheba’s perturbed meditations by the roadside had ultimately evolved a conclusion that there were only two remedies for the present desperate state of affairs. The first was merely to keep Troy away from Weatherbury till Boldwood’s indignation had cooled; the second to listen to Oak’s entreaties, and Boldwood’s denunciations, and give up Troy altogether.
Alas! Could she give up this new love — induce him to renounce her by saying she did not like him — could no more speak to him, and beg him, for her good, to end his furlough in Bath, and see her and Weatherbury no more?
It was a picture full of misery, but for a while she contemplated it firmly, allowing herself, nevertheless, as girls will, to dwell upon the happy life she would have enjoyed had Troy been Boldwood, and the path of love the path of duty — inflicting upon herself gratuitous tortures by imagining him the lover of another woman after forgetting her; for she had penetrated Troy’s nature so far as to estimate his tendencies pretty accurately, but unfortunately loved him no less in thinking that he might soon cease to love her — indeed, considerably more.
She jumped to her feet. She would see him at once. Yes, she would implore him by word of mouth to assist her in this dilemma. A letter to keep him away could not reach him in time, even if he should be disposed to listen to it.
Was Bathsheba altogether blind to the obvious fact that the support of a lover’s arms is not of a kind best calculated to assist a resolve to renounce him? Or was she sophistically sensible, with a thrill of pleasure, that by adopting this course for getting rid of him she was ensuring a meeting with him, at any rate, once more?
It was now dark, and the hour must have been nearly ten. The only way to accomplish her purpose was to give up her idea of visiting Liddy at Yalbury, return to Weatherbury Farm, put the horse into the gig, and drive at once to Bath. The scheme seemed at first impossible: the journey was a fearfully heavy one, even for a strong horse, at her own estimate; and she much underrated the distance. It was most venturesome for a woman, at night, and alone.
But could she go on to Liddy’s and leave things to take their course? No, no; anything but that. Bathsheba was full of a stimulating turbulence, beside which caution vainly prayed for a hearing. She turned back towards the village.
Her walk was slow, for she wished not to enter Weatherbury till the cottagers were in bed, and, particularly, till Boldwood was secure. Her plan was now to drive to Bath during the night, see Sergeant Troy in the morning before he set out to come to her, bid him farewell, and dismiss him: then to rest the horse thoroughly (herself to weep the while, she thought), starting early the next morning on her return journey. By this arrangement she could trot Dainty gently all the day, reach Liddy at Yalbury in the evening, and come home to Weatherbury with her whenever they chose — so nobody would know she had been to Bath at all. Such was Bathsheba’s scheme. But in her topographical ignorance as a late comer to the place, she misreckoned the distance of her journey as not much more than half what it really was.
This idea she proceeded to carry out, with what initial success we have already seen.
IN THE SUN — A HARBINGER
A WEEK passed, and there were no tidings of Bathsheba; nor was there any explanation of her Gilpin’s rig.
Then a note came for Maryann, stating that the business which had called her mistress to Bath still detained her there; but that she hoped to return in the course of another week.
Another week passed. The oat-harvest began, and all the men were a-field under a monochromatic Lammas sky, amid the trembling air and short shadows of noon. Indoors nothing was to be heard save the droning of blue-bottle flies; out- of-doors the whetting of scythes and the hiss of tressy oat- ears rubbing together as their perpendicular stalks of amber-yellow fell heavily to each swath. Every drop of moisture not in the men’s bottles and flagons in the form of cider was raining as perspiration from their foreheads and cheeks. Drought was everywhere else.
They were about to withdraw for a while into the charitable shade of a tree in the fence, when Coggan saw a figure in a blue coat and brass buttons running to them across the field.
“I wonder who that is?” he said.
“I hope nothing is wrong about mistress,” said Maryann, who with some other women was tying the bundles (oats being always sheafed on this farm), “but an unlucky token came to me indoors this morning. I went to unlock the door and dropped the key, and it fell upon the stone floor and broke into two pieces. Breaking a key is a dreadful bodement. I wish mis’ess was home.”
“‘Tis Cain Ball,” said Gabriel, pausing from whetting his reaphook.
Oak was not bound by his agreement to assist in the corn- field; but the harvest month is an anxious time for a farmer, and the corn was Bathsheba’s, so he lent a hand.
“He’s dressed up in his best clothes,” said Matthew Moon. “He hev been away from home for a few days, since he’s had that felon upon his finger; for ‘a said, since I can’t work I’ll have a hollerday.”
“A good time for one — a’ excellent time,” said Joseph Poorgrass, straightening his back; for he, like some of the others, had a way of resting a while from his labour on such hot days for reasons preternaturally small; of which Cain Ball’s advent on a week-day in his Sunday-clothes was one of the first magnitude. “Twas a bad leg allowed me to read the PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, and Mark Clark learnt All-Fours in a whitlow.”
“Ay, and my father put his arm out of joint to have time to go courting,” said Jan Coggan, in an eclipsing tone, wiping his face with his shirt-sleeve and thrusting back his hat upon the nape of his neck.
By this time Cainy was nearing the group of harvesters, and was perceived to be carrying a large slice of bread and ham in one hand, from which he took mouthfuls as he ran, the other being wrapped in a bandage. When he came close, his mouth assumed the bell shape, and he began to cough violently.
“Now, Cainy!” said Gabriel, sternly. “How many more times must I tell you to keep from running so fast when you be eating? You’ll choke yourself some day, that’s what you’ll do, Cain Ball.”
“Hok-hok-hok!” replied Cain. “A crumb of my victuals went the wrong way — hok-hok!, That’s what ’tis, Mister Oak! And I’ve been visiting to Bath because I had a felon on my thumb; yes, and I’ve seen — ahok-hok!”
Directly Cain mentioned Bath, they all threw down their hooks and forks and drew round him. Unfortunately the erratic crumb did not improve his narrative powers, and a supplementary hindrance was that of a sneeze, jerking from his pocket his rather large watch, which dangled in front of the young man pendulum-wise.
“Yes,” he continued, directing his thoughts to Bath and letting his eyes follow, “I’ve seed the world at last — yes — and I’ve seed our mis’ess — ahok-hok-hok!”
“Bother the boy!” said Gabriel. “Something is always going the wrong way down your throat, so that you can’t tell what’s necessary to be told.”
“Ahok! there! Please, Mister Oak, a gnat have just fleed into my stomach and brought the cough on again!”
“Yes, that’s just it. Your mouth is always open, you young rascal!”
“‘Tis terrible bad to have a gnat fly down yer throat, pore boy!” said Matthew Moon.
“Well, at Bath you saw —-” prompted Gabriel.
“I saw our mistress,” continued the junior shepherd, “and a sojer, walking along. And bymeby they got closer and closer, and then they went arm-in-crook, like courting complete — hok-hok! like courting complete — hok! — courting complete —-” Losing the thread of his narrative at this point simultaneously with his loss of breath, their informant looked up and down the field apparently for some clue to it. “Well, I see our mis’ess and a soldier — a-ha- a-wk!”
“Damn the boy!” said Gabriel.
“‘Tis only my manner, Mister Oak, if ye’ll excuse it,” said Cain Ball, looking reproachfully at Oak, with eyes drenched in their own dew.
“Here’s some cider for him — that’ll cure his throat,” said Jan Coggan, lifting a flagon of cider, pulling out the cork, and applying the hole to Cainy’s mouth; Joseph Poorgrass in the meantime beginning to think apprehensively of the serious consequences that would follow Cainy Ball’s strangulation in his cough, and the history of his Bath adventures dying with him.
“For my poor self, I always say ‘please God’ afore I do anything,” said Joseph, in an unboastful voice; “and so should you, Cain Ball. ‘Tis a great safeguard, and might perhaps save you from being choked to death some day.”
Mr. Coggan poured the liquor with unstinted liberality at the suffering Cain’s circular mouth; half of it running down the side of the flagon, and half of what reached his mouth running down outside his throat, and half of what ran in going the wrong way, and being coughed and sneezed around the persons of the gathered reapers in the form of a cider fog, which for a moment hung in the sunny air like a small exhalation.
“There’s a great clumsy sneeze! Why can’t ye have better manners, you young dog!” said Coggan, withdrawing the flagon.
“The cider went up my nose!” cried Cainy, as soon as he could speak; “and now ’tis gone down my neck, and into my poor dumb felon, and over my shiny buttons and all my best cloze!”
“The poor lad’s cough is terrible unfortunate,” said Matthew Moon. “And a great history on hand, too. Bump his back, shepherd.”
“‘Tis my nater,” mourned Cain. “Mother says I always was so excitable when my feelings were worked up to a point!”
“True, true,” said Joseph Poorgrass. “The Balls were always a very excitable family. I knowed the boy’s grandfather — a truly nervous and modest man, even to genteel refinery. ‘Twas blush, blush with him, almost as much as ’tis with me — not but that ’tis a fault in me!”
“Not at all, Master Poorgrass,” said Coggan. “‘Tis a very noble quality in ye.”
“Heh-heh! well, I wish to noise nothing abroad — nothing at all,” murmured Poorgrass, diffidently. “But we be born to things — that’s true. Yet I would rather my trifle were hid; though, perhaps, a high nater is a little high, and at my birth all things were possible to my Maker, and he may have begrudged no gifts…. But under your bushel, Joseph! under your bushel with ‘ee! A strange desire, neighbours, this desire to hide, and no praise due. Yet there is a Sermon on the Mount with a calendar of the blessed at the head, and certain meek men may be named therein.”
“Cainy’s grandfather was a very clever man,” said Matthew Moon. “Invented a’ apple-tree out of his own head, which is called by his name to this day — the Early Ball. You know ’em, Jan? A Quarrenden grafted on a Tom Putt, and a Rathe- ripe upon top o’ that again. ‘Tis trew ‘a used to bide about in a public-house wi’ a ‘ooman in a way he had no business to by rights, but there — ‘a were a clever man in the sense of the term.”
“Now then,” said Gabriel, impatiently, “what did you see, Cain?”
“I seed our mis’ess go into a sort of a park place, where there’s seats, and shrubs and flowers, arm-in-crook with a sojer,” continued Cainy, firmly, and with a dim sense that his words were very effective as regarded Gabriel’s emotions. “And I think the sojer was Sergeant Troy. And they sat there together for more than half-an-hour, talking moving things, and she once was crying a’most to death. And when they came out her eyes were shining and she was as white as a lily; and they looked into one another’s faces, as far-gone friendly as a man and woman can be.”
Gabriel’s features seemed to get thinner. “Well, what did you see besides?”
“Oh, all sorts.”
“White as a lily? You are sure ’twas she?”
“Well, what besides?”
“Great glass windows to the shops, and great clouds in the sky, full of rain, and old wooden trees in the country round.”
“You stun-poll! What will ye say next?” said Coggan.
“Let en alone,” interposed Joseph Poorgrass. “The boy’s meaning is that the sky and the earth in the kingdom of Bath is not altogether different from ours here. ‘Tis for our good to gain knowledge of strange cities, and as such the boy’s words should be suffered, so to speak it.”
“And the people of Bath,” continued Cain, “never need to light their fires except as a luxury, for the water springs up out of the earth ready boiled for use.”
“‘Tis true as the light,” testified Matthew Moon. “I’ve heard other navigators say the same thing.”
“They drink nothing else there,” said Cain, “and seem to enjoy it, to see how they swaller it down.”
“Well, it seems a barbarian practice enough to us, but I daresay the natives think nothing o’ it,” said Matthew.
“And don’t victuals spring up as well as drink?” asked Coggan, twirling his eye.
“No — I own to a blot there in Bath — a true blot. God didn’t provide ’em with victuals as well as drink, and ’twas a drawback I couldn’t get over at all.”
“Well, ’tis a curious place, to say the least,” observed Moon; “and it must be a curious people that live therein.”
“Miss Everdene and the soldier were walking about together, you say?” said Gabriel, returning to the group.
“Ay, and she wore a beautiful gold-colour silk gown, trimmed with black lace, that would have stood alone ‘ithout legs inside if required. ‘Twas a very winsome sight; and her hair was brushed splendid. And when the sun shone upon the bright gown and his red coat — my! how handsome they looked. You could see ’em all the length of the street.”
“And what then?” murmured Gabriel.
“And then I went into Griffin’s to hae my boots hobbed, and then I went to Riggs’s batty-cake shop, and asked ’em for a penneth of the cheapest and nicest stales, that were all but blue-mouldy, but not quite. And whilst I was chawing ’em down I walked on and seed a clock with a face as big as a baking trendle —-”
“But that’s nothing to do with mistress!”
“I’m coming to that, if you’ll leave me alone, Mister Oak!” remonstrated Cainy. “If you excites me, perhaps you’ll bring on my cough, and then I shan’t be able to tell ye nothing.”
“Yes — let him tell it his own way,” said Coggan.
Gabriel settled into a despairing attitude of patience, and Cainy went on: —
“And there were great large houses, and more people all the week long than at Weatherbury club-walking on White Tuesdays. And I went to grand churches and chapels. And how the parson would pray! Yes; he would kneel down and put up his hands together, and make the holy gold rings on his fingers gleam and twinkle in yer eyes, that he’d earned by praying so excellent well! — Ah yes, I wish I lived there.”
“Our poor Parson Thirdly can’t get no money to buy such rings,” said Matthew Moon, thoughtfully. “And as good a man as ever walked. I don’t believe poor Thirdly have a single one, even of humblest tin or copper. Such a great ornament as they’d be to him on a dull afternoon, when he’s up in the pulpit lighted by the wax candles! But ’tis impossible, poor man. Ah, to think how unequal things be.”
“Perhaps he’s made of different stuff than to wear ’em,” said Gabriel, grimly. “Well, that’s enough of this. Go on, Cainy — quick.”
“Oh — and the new style of parsons wear moustaches and long beards,” continued the illustrious traveller, “and look like Moses and Aaron complete, and make we fokes in the congregation feel all over like the children of Israel.”
“A very right feeling — very,” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“And there’s two religions going on in the nation now — High Church and High Chapel. And, thinks I, I’ll play fair; so I went to High Church in the morning, and High Chapel in the afternoon.”
“A right and proper boy,” said Joseph Poorgrass.
“Well, at High Church they pray singing, and worship all the colours of the rainbow; and at High Chapel they pray preaching, and worship drab and whitewash only. And then — I didn’t see no more of Miss Everdene at all.”
“Why didn’t you say so afore, then?” exclaimed Oak, with much disappointment.
“Ah,” said Matthew Moon, “she’ll wish her cake dough if so be she’s over intimate with that man.”
“She’s not over intimate with him,” said Gabriel, indignantly.
“She would know better,” said Coggan. “Our mis’ess has too much sense under they knots of black hair to do such a mad thing.”
“You see, he’s not a coarse, ignorant man, for he was well brought up,” said Matthew, dubiously. “‘Twas only wildness that made him a soldier, and maids rather like your man of sin.”
“Now, Cain Ball,” said Gabriel restlessly, “can you swear in the most awful form that the woman you saw was Miss Everdene?”
“Cain Ball, you be no longer a babe and suckling,” said Joseph in the sepulchral tone the circumstances demanded, “and you know what taking an oath is. ‘Tis a horrible testament mind ye, which you say and seal with your blood- stone, and the prophet Matthew tells us that on whomsoever it shall fall it will grind him to powder. Now, before all the work-folk here assembled, can you swear to your words as the shepherd asks ye?”
“Please no, Mister Oak!” said Cainy, looking from one to the other with great uneasiness at the spiritual magnitude of the position. “I don’t mind saying ’tis true, but I don’t like to say ’tis damn true, if that’s what you mane.”
“Cain, Cain, how can you!” asked Joseph sternly. “You be asked to swear in a holy manner, and you swear like wicked Shimei, the son of Gera, who cursed as he came. Young man, fie!”
“No, I don’t! ‘Tis you want to squander a pore boy’s soul, Joseph Poorgrass — that’s what ’tis!” said Cain, beginning to cry. “All I mane is that in common truth ’twas Miss Everdene and Sergeant Troy, but in the horrible so-help-me truth that ye want to make of it perhaps ’twas somebody else!”
“There’s no getting at the rights of it,” said Gabriel, turning to his work.
“Cain Ball, you’ll come to a bit of bread!” groaned Joseph Poorgrass.
Then the reapers’ hooks were flourished again, and the old sounds went on. Gabriel, without making any pretence of being lively, did nothing to show that he was particularly dull. However, Coggan knew pretty nearly how the land lay, and when they were in a nook together he said —
“Don’t take on about her, Gabriel. What difference does it make whose sweetheart she is, since she can’t be yours?”
“That’s the very thing I say to myself,” said Gabriel.
HOME AGAIN — A TRICKSTER
THAT same evening at dusk Gabriel was leaning over Coggan’s garden-gate, taking an up-and-down survey before retiring to rest.
A vehicle of some kind was softly creeping along the grassy margin of the lane. From it spread the tones of two women talking. The tones were natural and not at all suppressed. Oak instantly knew the voices to be those of Bathsheba and Liddy.
The carriage came opposite and passed by. It was Miss Everdene’s gig, and Liddy and her mistress were the only occupants of the seat. Liddy was asking questions about the city of Bath, and her companion was answering them listlessly and unconcernedly. Both Bathsheba and the horse seemed weary.
The exquisite relief of finding that she was here again, safe and sound, overpowered all reflection, and Oak could only luxuriate in the sense of it. All grave reports were forgotten.
He lingered and lingered on, till there was no difference between the eastern and western expanses of sky, and the timid hares began to limp courageously round the dim hillocks. Gabriel might have been there an additional half- hour when a dark form walked slowly by. “Good-night, Gabriel,” the passer said.
It was Boldwood. “Good-night, sir,” said Gabriel.
Boldwood likewise vanished up the road, and Oak shortly afterwards turned indoors to bed.
Farmer Boldwood went on towards Miss Everdene’s house. He reached the front, and approaching the entrance, saw a light in the parlour. The blind was not drawn down, and inside the room was Bathsheba, looking over some papers or letters. Her back was towards Boldwood. He went to the door, knocked, and waited with tense muscles and an aching brow.
Boldwood had not been outside his garden since his meeting with Bathsheba in the road to Yalbury. Silent and alone, he had remained in moody meditation on woman’s ways, deeming as essentials of the whole sex the accidents of the single one of their number he had ever closely beheld. By degrees a more charitable temper had pervaded him, and this was the reason of his sally to-night. He had come to apologize and beg forgiveness of Bathsheba with something like a sense of shame at his violence, having but just now learnt that she had returned — only from a visit to Liddy, as he supposed, the Bath escapade being quite unknown to him.
He inquired for Miss Everdene. Liddy’s manner was odd, but he did not notice it. She went in, leaving him standing there, and in her absence the blind of the room containing Bathsheba was pulled down. Boldwood augured ill from that sign. Liddy came out.
“My mistress cannot see you, sir,” she said.
The farmer instantly went out by the gate. He was unforgiven — that was the issue of it all. He had seen her who was to him simultaneously a delight and a torture, sitting in the room he had shared with her as a peculiarly privileged guest only a little earlier in the summer, and she had denied him an entrance there now.
Boldwood did not hurry homeward. It was ten o’clock at least, when, walking deliberately through the lower part of Weatherbury, he heard the carrier’s spring van entering the village. The van ran to and from a town in a northern direction, and it was owned and driven by a Weatherbury man, at the door of whose house it now pulled up. The lamp fixed to the head of the hood illuminated a scarlet and gilded form, who was the first to alight.
“Ah!” said Boldwood to himself, “come to see her again.”
Troy entered the carrier’s house, which had been the place of his lodging on his last visit to his native place. Boldwood was moved by a sudden determination. He hastened home. In ten minutes he was back again, and made as if he were going to call upon Troy at the carrier’s. But as he approached, some one opened the door and came out. He heard this person say “Good-night” to the inmates, and the voice was Troy’s. This was strange, coming so immediately after his arrival. Boldwood, however, hastened up to him. Troy had what appeared to be a carpet-bag in his hand — the same that he had brought with him. It seemed as if he were going to leave again this very night.
Troy turned up the hill and quickened his pace. Boldwood stepped forward.
“Yes — I’m Sergeant Troy.”
“Just arrived from up the country, I think?”
“Just arrived from Bath.”
“I am William Boldwood.”
The tone in which this word was uttered was all that had been wanted to bring Boldwood to the point.
“I wish to speak a word with you,” he said.
“About her who lives just ahead there — and about a woman you have wronged.”
“I wonder at your impertinence,” said Troy, moving on.
“Now look here,” said Boldwood, standing in front of him, “wonder or not, you are going to hold a conversation with me.”
Troy heard the dull determination in Boldwood’s voice, looked at his stalwart frame, then at the thick cudgel he carried in his hand. He remembered it was past ten o’clock. It seemed worth while to be civil to Boldwood.
“Very well, I’ll listen with pleasure,” said Troy, placing his bag on the ground, “only speak low, for somebody or other may overhear us in the farmhouse there.”
“Well then — I know a good deal concerning your Fanny Robin’s attachment to you. I may say, too, that I believe I am the only person in the village, excepting Gabriel Oak, who does know it. You ought to marry her.”
“I suppose I ought. Indeed, I wish to, but I cannot.”
Troy was about to utter something hastily; he then checked himself and said, “I am too poor.” His voice was changed. Previously it had had a devil-may-care tone. It was the voice of a trickster now.
Boldwood’s present mood was not critical enough to notice tones. He continued, “I may as well speak plainly; and understand, I don’t wish to enter into the questions of right or wrong, woman’s honour and shame, or to express any opinion on your conduct. I intend a business transaction with you.”
“I see,” said Troy. “Suppose we sit down here.”
An old tree trunk lay under the hedge immediately opposite, and they sat down.
“I was engaged to be married to Miss Everdene,” said Boldwood, “but you came and —-”
“Not engaged,” said Troy.
“As good as engaged.”
“If I had not turned up she might have become engaged to you.”
“If you had not come I should certainly — yes, CERTAINLY — have been accepted by this time. If you had not seen her you might have been married to Fanny. Well, there’s too much difference between Miss Everdene’s station and your own for this flirtation with her ever to benefit you by ending in marriage. So all I ask is, don’t molest her any more. Marry Fanny. I’ll make it worth your while.”
“How will you?”
“I’ll pay you well now, I’ll settle a sum of money upon her, and I’ll see that you don’t suffer from poverty in the future. I’ll put it clearly. Bathsheba is only playing with you: you are too poor for her as I said; so give up wasting your time about a great match you’ll never make for a moderate and rightful match you may make to-morrow; take up your carpet-bag, turn about, leave Weatherbury now, this night, and you shall take fifty pounds with you. Fanny shall have fifty to enable her to prepare for the wedding, when you have told me where she is living, and she shall have five hundred paid down on her wedding-day.”
In making this statement Boldwood’s voice revealed only too clearly a consciousness of the weakness of his position, his aims, and his method. His manner had lapsed quite from that of the firm and dignified Boldwood of former times; and such a scheme as he had now engaged in he would have condemned as childishly imbecile only a few months ago. We discern a grand force in the lover which he lacks whilst a free man; but there is a breadth of vision in the free man which in the lover we vainly seek. Where there is much bias there must be some narrowness, and love, though added emotion, is subtracted capacity. Boldwood exemplified this to an abnormal degree: he knew nothing of Fanny Robin’s circumstances or whereabouts, he knew nothing of Troy’s possibilities, yet that was what he said.
“I like Fanny best,” said Troy; “and if, as you say, Miss Everdene is out of my reach, why I have all to gain by accepting your money, and marrying Fan. But she’s only a servant.”
“Never mind — do you agree to my arrangement?”
“Ah!” said Boldwood, in a more elastic voice. “Oh, Troy, if you like her best, why then did you step in here and injure my happiness?”
“I love Fanny best now,” said Troy. “But Bathsh —- Miss Everdene inflamed me, and displaced Fanny for a time. It is over now.”
“Why should it be over so soon? And why then did you come here again?”
“There are weighty reasons. Fifty pounds at once, you said!”
“I did,” said Boldwood, “and here they are — fifty sovereigns.” He handed Troy a small packet.
“You have everything ready — it seems that you calculated on my accepting them,” said the sergeant, taking the packet.
“I thought you might accept them,” said Boldwood.
“You’ve only my word that the programme shall be adhered to, whilst I at any rate have fifty pounds.”
“I had thought of that, and I have considered that if I can’t appeal to your honour I can trust to your — well, shrewdness we’ll call it — not to lose five hundred pounds in prospect, and also make a bitter enemy of a man who is willing to be an extremely useful friend.”
“Stop, listen!” said Troy in a whisper.
A light pit-pat was audible upon the road just above them.
“By George — ’tis she,” he continued. “I must go on and meet her.”
“She — who?”
“Bathsheba — out alone at this time o’ night!” said Boldwood in amazement, and starting up. “Why must you meet her?”
“She was expecting me to-night — and I must now speak to her, and wish her good-bye, according to your wish.”
“I don’t see the necessity of speaking.”
“It can do no harm — and she’ll be wandering about looking for me if I don’t. You shall hear all I say to her. It will help you in your love-making when I am gone.”
“Your tone is mocking.”
“Oh no. And remember this, if she does not know what has become of me, she will think more about me than if I tell her flatly I have come to give her up.”
“Will you confine your words to that one point? — Shall I hear every word you say?”
“Every word. Now sit still there, and hold my carpet bag for me, and mark what you hear.”
The light footstep came closer, halting occasionally, as if the walker listened for a sound. Troy whistled a double note in a soft, fluty tone.
“Come to that, is it!” murmured Boldwood, uneasily.
“You promised silence,” said Troy.
“I promise again.”
Troy stepped forward.
“Frank, dearest, is that you?” The tones were Bathsheba’s.
“O God!” said Boldwood.
“Yes,” said Troy to her.
“How late you are,” she continued, tenderly. “Did you come by the carrier? I listened and heard his wheels entering the village, but it was some time ago, and I had almost given you up, Frank.”
“I was sure to come,” said Frank. “You knew I should, did you not?”
“Well, I thought you would,” she said, playfully; “and, Frank, it is so lucky! There’s not a soul in my house but me to-night. I’ve packed them all off so nobody on earth will know of your visit to your lady’s bower. Liddy wanted to go to her grandfather’s to tell him about her holiday, and I said she might stay with them till to-morrow — when you’ll be gone again.”
“Capital,” said Troy. “But, dear me, I had better go back for my bag, because my slippers and brush and comb are in it; you run home whilst I fetch it, and I’ll promise to be in your parlour in ten minutes.”
“Yes.” She turned and tripped up the hill again.
During the progress of this dialogue there was a nervous twitching of Boldwood’s tightly closed lips, and his face became bathed in a clammy dew. He now started forward towards Troy. Troy turned to him and took up the bag.
“Shall I tell her I have come to give her up and cannot marry her?” said the soldier, mockingly.
“No, no; wait a minute. I want to say more to you — more to you!” said Boldwood, in a hoarse whisper.
“Now,” said Troy, “you see my dilemma. Perhaps I am a bad man — the victim of my impulses — led away to do what I ought to leave undone. I can’t, however, marry them both. And I have two reasons for choosing Fanny. First, I like her best upon the whole, and second, you make it worth my while.”
At the same instant Boldwood sprang upon him, and held him by the neck. Troy felt Boldwood’s grasp slowly tightening. The move was absolutely unexpected.
“A moment,” he gasped. “You are injuring her you love!”
“Well, what do you mean?” said the farmer.
“Give me breath,” said Troy.
Boldwood loosened his hand, saying, “By Heaven, I’ve a mind to kill you!”
“And ruin her.”
“Oh, how can she be saved now, unless I marry her?”
Boldwood groaned. He reluctantly released the soldier, and flung him back against the hedge. “Devil, you torture me!” said he.
Troy rebounded like a ball, and was about to make a dash at the farmer; but he checked himself, saying lightly —
“It is not worth while to measure my strength with you. Indeed it is a barbarous way of settling a quarrel. I shall shortly leave the army because of the same conviction. Now after that revelation of how the land lies with Bathsheba, ‘twould be a mistake to kill me, would it not?”
“‘Twould be a mistake to kill you,” repeated Boldwood, mechanically, with a bowed head.
“Better kill yourself.”
“I’m glad you see it.”
“Troy, make her your wife, and don’t act upon what I arranged just now. The alternative is dreadful, but take Bathsheba; I give her up! She must love you indeed to sell soul and body to you so utterly as she has done. Wretched woman — deluded woman — you are, Bathsheba!”
“But about Fanny?”
“Bathsheba is a woman well to do,” continued Boldwood, in nervous anxiety, and, Troy, she will make a good wife; and, indeed, she is worth your hastening on your marriage with her!”
“But she has a will — not to say a temper, and I shall be a mere slave to her. I could do anything with poor Fanny Robin.”
“Troy,” said Boldwood, imploringly, “I’ll do anything for you, only don’t desert her; pray don’t desert her, Troy.”
“Which, poor Fanny?”
“No; Bathsheba Everdene. Love her best! Love her tenderly! How shall I get you to see how advantageous it will be to you to secure her at once?”
“I don’t wish to secure her in any new way.”
Boldwood’s arm moved spasmodically towards Troy’s person again. He repressed the instinct, and his form drooped as with pain.
Troy went on —
“I shall soon purchase my discharge, and then —-”
“But I wish you to hasten on this marriage! It will be better for you both. You love each other, and you must let me help you to do it.”
“Why, by settling the five hundred on Bathsheba instead of Fanny, to enable you to marry at once. No; she wouldn’t have it of me. I’ll pay it down to you on the wedding-day.”
Troy paused in secret amazement at Boldwood’s wild infatuation. He carelessly said, “And am I to have anything now?”
“Yes, if you wish to. But I have not much additional money with me. I did not expect this; but all I have is yours.”
Boldwood, more like a somnambulist than a wakeful man, pulled out the large canvas bag he carried by way of a purse, and searched it.
“I have twenty-one pounds more with me,” he said. “Two notes and a sovereign. But before I leave you I must have a paper signed —-”
“Pay me the money, and we’ll go straight to her parlour, and make any arrangement you please to secure my compliance with your wishes. But she must know nothing of this cash business.”
“Nothing, nothing,” said Boldwood, hastily. “Here is the sum, and if you’ll come to my house we’ll write out the agreement for the remainder, and the terms also.”
“First we’ll call upon her.”
“But why? Come with me to-night, and go with me to-morrow to the surrogate’s.”
“But she must be consulted; at any rate informed.”
“Very well; go on.”
They went up the hill to Bathsheba’s house. When they stood at the entrance, Troy said, “Wait here a moment.” Opening the door, he glided inside, leaving the door ajar.
Boldwood waited. In two minutes a light appeared in the passage. Boldwood then saw that the chain had been fastened across the door. Troy appeared inside, carrying a bedroom candlestick.
“What, did you think I should break in?” said Boldwood, contemptuously.
“Oh, no, it is merely my humour to secure things. Will you read this a moment? I’ll hold the light.”
Troy handed a folded newspaper through the slit between door and doorpost, and put the candle close. “That’s the paragraph,” he said, placing his finger on a line.
Boldwood looked and read —
“On the 17th inst., at St. Ambrose’s Church, Bath, by the Rev. G. Mincing, B.A., Francis Troy, only son of the late Edward Troy, Esq., M.D., of Weatherbury, and sergeant with Dragoon Guards, to Bathsheba, only surviving daughter of the late Mr. John Everdene, of Casterbridge.”
“This may be called Fort meeting Feeble, hey, Boldwood?” said Troy. A low gurgle of derisive laughter followed the words.
The paper fell from Boldwood’s hands. Troy continued —
“Fifty pounds to marry Fanny. Good. Twenty-one pounds not to marry Fanny, but Bathsheba. Good. Finale: already Bathsheba’s husband. Now, Boldwood, yours is the ridiculous fate which always attends interference between a man and his wife. And another word. Bad as I am, I am not such a villain as to make the marriage or misery of any woman a matter of huckster and sale. Fanny has long ago left me. I don’t know where she is. I have searched everywhere. Another word yet. You say you love Bathsheba; yet on the merest apparent evidence you instantly believe in her dishonour. A fig for such love! Now that I’ve taught you a lesson, take your money back again.”
“I will not; I will not!” said Boldwood, in a hiss.
“Anyhow I won’t have it,” said Troy, contemptuously. He wrapped the packet of gold in the notes, and threw the whole into the road.
Boldwood shook his clenched fist at him. “You juggler of Satan! You black hound! But I’ll punish you yet; mark me, I’ll punish you yet!”
Another peal of laughter. Troy then closed the door, and locked himself in.
Throughout the whole of that night Boldwood’s dark form might have been seen walking about hills and downs of Weatherbury like an unhappy Shade in the Mournful Fields by Acheron.
AT AN UPPER WINDOW
IT was very early the next morning — a time of sun and dew. The confused beginnings of many birds’ songs spread into the healthy air, and the wan blue of the heaven was here and there coated with thin webs of incorporeal cloud which were of no effect in obscuring day. All the lights in the scene were yellow as to colour, and all the shadows were attenuated as to form. The creeping plants about the old manor-house were bowed with rows of heavy water drops, which had upon objects behind them the effect of minute lenses of high magnifying power.
Just before the clock struck five Gabriel Oak and Coggan passed the village cross, and went on together to the fields. They were yet barely in view of their mistress’s house, when Oak fancied he saw the opening of a casement in one of the upper windows. The two men were at this moment partially screened by an elder bush, now beginning to be enriched with black bunches of fruit, and they paused before emerging from its shade.
A handsome man leaned idly from the lattice. He looked east and then west, in the manner of one who makes a first morning survey. The man was Sergeant Troy. His red jacket was loosely thrown on, but not buttoned, and he had altogether the relaxed bearing of a soldier taking his ease.
Coggan spoke first, looking quietly at the window.
“She has married him!” he said.
Gabriel had previously beheld the sight, and he now stood with his back turned, making no reply.
“I fancied we should know something to-day,” continued Coggan. “I heard wheels pass my door just after dark — you were out somewhere.” He glanced round upon Gabriel. “Good heavens above us, Oak, how white your face is; you look like a corpse!”
“Do I?” said Oak, with a faint smile.
“Lean on the gate: I’ll wait a bit.”
“All right, all right.”
They stood by the gate awhile, Gabriel listlessly staring at the ground. His mind sped into the future, and saw there enacted in years of leisure the scenes of repentance that would ensue from this work of haste. That they were married he had instantly decided. Why had it been so mysteriously managed? It had become known that she had had a fearful journey to Bath, owing to her miscalculating the distance: that the horse had broken down, and that she had been more than two days getting there. It was not Bathsheba’s way to do things furtively. With all her faults, she was candour itself. Could she have been entrapped? The union was not only an unutterable grief to him: it amazed him, notwithstanding that he had passed the preceding week in a suspicion that such might be the issue of Troy’s meeting her away from home. Her quiet return with Liddy had to some extent dispersed the dread. Just as that imperceptible motion which appears like stillness is infinitely divided in its properties from stillness itself, so had his hope undistinguishable from despair differed from despair indeed.
In a few minutes they moved on again towards the house. The sergeant still looked from the window.
“Morning, comrades!” he shouted, in a cheery voice, when they came up.
Coggan replied to the greeting. “Bain’t ye going to answer the man?” he then said to Gabriel. “I’d say good morning — you needn’t spend a hapenny of meaning upon it, and yet keep the man civil.”
Gabriel soon decided too that, since the deed was done, to put the best face upon the matter would be the greatest kindness to her he loved.
“Good morning, Sergeant Troy,” he returned, in a ghastly voice.
“A rambling, gloomy house this,” said Troy, smiling.
“Why — they may not be married!” suggested Coggan. “Perhaps she’s not there.”
Gabriel shook his head. The soldier turned a little towards the east, and the sun kindled his scarlet coat to an orange glow.
“But it is a nice old house,” responded Gabriel.
“Yes — I suppose so; but I feel like new wine in an old bottle here. My notion is that sash-windows should be put throughout, and these old wainscoted walls brightened up a bit; or the oak cleared quite away, and the walls papered.”
“It would be a pity, I think.”
“Well, no. A philosopher once said in my hearing that the old builders, who worked when art was a living thing, had no respect for the work of builders who went before them, but pulled down and altered as they thought fit; and why shouldn’t we? ‘Creation and preservation don’t do well together,’ says he, ‘and a million of antiquarians can’t invent a style.’ My mind exactly. I am for making this place more modern, that we may be cheerful whilst we can.”
The military man turned and surveyed the interior of the room, to assist his ideas of improvement in this direction. Gabriel and Coggan began to move on.
“Oh, Coggan,” said Troy, as if inspired by a recollection “do you know if insanity has ever appeared in Mr. Boldwood’s family?”
Jan reflected for a moment.
“I once heard that an uncle of his was queer in his head, but I don’t know the rights o’t,” he said.
“It is of no importance,” said Troy, lightly. “Well, I shall be down in the fields with you some time this week; but I have a few matters to attend to first. So good-day to you. We shall, of course, keep on just as friendly terms as usual. I’m not a proud man: nobody is ever able to say that of Sergeant Troy. However, what is must be, and here’s half-a-crown to drink my health, men.”
Troy threw the coin dexterously across the front plot and over the fence towards Gabriel, who shunned it in its fall, his face turning to an angry red. Coggan twirled his eye, edged forward, and caught the money in its ricochet upon the road.
“Very well — you keep it, Coggan,” said Gabriel with disdain and almost fiercely. “As for me, I’ll do with-out gifts from him!”
“Don’t show it too much,” said Coggan, musingly. “For if he’s married to her, mark my words, he’ll buy his discharge and be our master here. Therefore ’tis well to say ‘Friend’ outwardly, though you say ‘Troublehouse’ within.”
“Well — perhaps it is best to be silent; but I can’t go further than that. I can’t flatter, and if my place here is only to be kept by smoothing him down, my place must be lost.”
A horseman, whom they had for some time seen in the distance, now appeared close beside them.
“There’s Mr. Boldwood,” said Oak. “I wonder what Troy meant by his question.”
Coggan and Oak nodded respectfully to the farmer, just checked their paces to discover if they were wanted, and finding they were not stood back to let him pass on.
The only signs of the terrible sorrow Boldwood had been combating through the night, and was combating now, were the want of colour in his well-defined face, the enlarged appearance of the veins in his forehead and temples, and the sharper lines about his mouth. The horse bore him away, and the very step of the animal seemed significant of dogged despair. Gabriel, for a minute, rose above his own grief in noticing Boldwood’s. He saw the square figure sitting erect upon the horse, the head turned to neither side, the elbows steady by the hips, the brim of the hat level and undisturbed in its onward glide, until the keen edges of Boldwood’s shape sank by degrees over the hill. To one who knew the man and his story there was something more striking in this immobility than in a collapse. The clash of discord between mood and matter here was forced painfully home to the heart; and, as in laughter there are more dreadful phases than in tears, so was there in the steadiness of this agonized man an expression deeper than a cry.
WEALTH IN JEOPARDY — THE REVEL
ONE night, at the end of August, when Bathsheba’s experiences as a married woman were still new, and when the weather was yet dry and sultry, a man stood motionless in the stockyard of Weatherbury Upper Farm, looking at the moon and sky.
The night had a sinister aspect. A heated breeze from the south slowly fanned the summits of lofty objects, and in the sky dashes of buoyant cloud were sailing in a course at right angles to that of another stratum, neither of them in the direction of the breeze below. The moon, as seen through these films, had a lurid metallic look. The fields were sallow with the impure light, and all were tinged in monochrome, as if beheld through stained glass. The same evening the sheep had trailed homeward head to tail, the behaviour of the rooks had been confused, and the horses had moved with timidity and caution.
Thunder was imminent, and, taking some secondary appearances into consideration, it was likely to be followed by one of the lengthened rains which mark the close of dry weather for the season. Before twelve hours had passed a harvest atmosphere would be a bygone thing.
Oak gazed with misgiving at eight naked and unprotected ricks, massive and heavy with the rich produce of one-half the farm for that year. He went on to the barn.
This was the night which had been selected by Sergeant Troy — ruling now in the room of his wife — for giving the harvest supper and dance. As Oak approached the building the sound of violins and a tambourine, and the regular jigging of many feet, grew more distinct. He came close to the large doors, one of which stood slightly ajar, and looked in.
The central space, together with the recess at one end, was emptied of all incumbrances, and this area, covering about two-thirds of the whole, was appropriated for the gathering, the remaining end, which was piled to the ceiling with oats, being screened off with sail-cloth. Tufts and garlands of green foliage decorated the walls, beams, and extemporized chandeliers, and immediately opposite to Oak a rostrum had been erected, bearing a table and chairs. Here sat three fiddlers, and beside them stood a frantic man with his hair on end, perspiration streaming down his cheeks, and a tambourine quivering in his hand.
The dance ended, and on the black oak floor in the midst a new row of couples formed for another.
“Now, ma’am, and no offence I hope, I ask what dance you would like next?” said the first violin.
“Really, it makes no difference,” said the clear voice of Bathsheba, who stood at the inner end of the building, observing the scene from behind a table covered with cups and viands. Troy was lolling beside her.
“Then,” said the fiddler, “I’ll venture to name that the right and proper thing is “The Soldier’s Joy” — there being a gallant soldier married into the farm — hey, my sonnies, and gentlemen all?”
“It shall be ‘The Soldier’s Joy,'” exclaimed a chorus.
“Thanks for the compliment,” said the sergeant gaily, taking Bathsheba by the hand and leading her to the top of the dance. “For though I have purchased my discharge from Her Most Gracious Majesty’s regiment of cavalry the 11th Dragoon Guards, to attend to the new duties awaiting me here, I shall continue a soldier in spirit and feeling as long as I live.”
So the dance began. As to the merits of “The Soldier’s Joy,” there cannot be, and never were, two opinions. It has been observed in the musical circles of Weatherbury and its vicinity that this melody, at the end of three-quarters of an hour of thunderous footing, still possesses more stimulative properties for the heel and toe than the majority of other dances at their first opening. “The Soldier’s Joy” has, too, an additional charm, in being so admirably adapted to the tambourine aforesaid — no mean instrument in the hands of a performer who understands the proper convulsions, spasms, St. Vitus’s dances, and fearful frenzies necessary when exhibiting its tones in their highest perfection.
The immortal tune ended, a fine DD rolling forth from the bass-viol with the sonorousness of a cannonade, and Gabriel delayed his entry no longer. He avoided Bathsheba, and got as near as possible to the platform, where Sergeant Troy was now seated, drinking brandy-and-water, though the others drank without exception cider and ale. Gabriel could not easily thrust himself within speaking distance of the sergeant, and he sent a message, asking him to come down for a moment. The sergeant said he could not attend.
“Will you tell him, then,” said Gabriel, “that I only stepped ath’art to say that a heavy rain is sure to fall soon, and that something should be done to protect the ricks?”
“Mr. Troy says it will not rain,” returned the messenger, “and he cannot stop to talk to you about such fidgets.”
In juxtaposition with Troy, Oak had a melancholy tendency to look like a candle beside gas, and ill at ease, he went out again, thinking he would go home; for, under the circumstances, he had no heart for the scene in the barn. At the door he paused for a moment: Troy was speaking.
“Friends, it is not only the harvest home that we are celebrating to-night; but this is also a Wedding Feast. A short time ago I had the happiness to lead to the altar this lady, your mistress, and not until now have we been able to give any public flourish to the event in Weatherbury. That it may be thoroughly well done, and that every man may go happy to bed, I have ordered to be brought here some bottles of brandy and kettles of hot water. A treble-strong goblet will he handed round to each guest.”
Bathsheba put her hand upon his arm, and, with upturned pale face, said imploringly, “No — don’t give it to them — pray don’t, Frank! It will only do them harm: they have had enough of everything.”
“True — we don’t wish for no more, thank ye,” said one or two.
“Pooh!” said the sergeant contemptuously, and raised his voice as if lighted up by a new idea. “Friends,” he said, “we’ll send the women-folk home! ‘Tis time they were in bed. Then we cockbirds will have a jolly carouse to ourselves! If any of the men show the white feather, let them look elsewhere for a winter’s work.”
Bathsheba indignantly left the barn, followed by all the women and children. The musicians, not looking upon themselves as “company,” slipped quietly away to their spring waggon and put in the horse. Thus Troy and the men on the farm were left sole occupants of the place. Oak, not to appear unnecessarily disagreeable, stayed a little while; then he, too, arose and quietly took his departure, followed by a friendly oath from the sergeant for not staying to a second round of grog.
Gabriel proceeded towards his home. In approaching the door, his toe kicked something which felt and sounded soft, leathery, and distended, like a boxing-glove. It was a large toad humbly travelling across the path. Oak took it up, thinking it might be better to kill the creature to save it from pain; but finding it uninjured, he placed it again among the grass. He knew what this direct message from the Great Mother meant. And soon came another.
When he struck a light indoors there appeared upon the table a thin glistening streak, as if a brush of varnish had been lightly dragged across it. Oak’s eyes followed the serpentine sheen to the other side, where it led up to a huge brown garden-slug, which had come indoors to-night for reasons of its own. It was Nature’s second way of hinting to him that he was to prepare for foul weather.
Oak sat down meditating for nearly an hour. During this time two black spiders, of the kind common in thatched houses, promenaded the ceiling, ultimately dropping to the floor. This reminded him that if there was one class of manifestation on this matter that he thoroughly understood, it was the instincts of sheep. He left the room, ran across two or three fields towards the flock, got upon a hedge, and looked over among them.
They were crowded close together on the other side around some furze bushes, and the first peculiarity observable was that, on the sudden appearance of Oak’s head over the fence, they did not stir or run away. They had now a terror of something greater than their terror of man. But this was not the most noteworthy feature: they were all grouped in such a way that their tails, without a single exception, were towards that half of the horizon from which the storm threatened. There was an inner circle closely huddled, and outside these they radiated wider apart, the pattern formed by the flock as a whole not being unlike a vandyked lace collar, to which the clump of furze-bushes stood in the position of a wearer’s neck.
This was enough to re-establish him in his original opinion. He knew now that he was right, and that Troy was wrong. Every voice in nature was unanimous in bespeaking change. But two distinct translations attached to these dumb expressions. Apparently there was to be a thunder-storm, and afterwards a cold continuous rain. The creeping things seemed to know all about the later rain, but little of the interpolated thunder-storm; whilst the sheep knew all about the thunder-storm and nothing of the later rain.
This complication of weathers being uncommon, was all the more to be feared. Oak returned to the stack-yard. All was silent here, and the conical tips of the ricks jutted darkly into the sky. There were five wheat-ricks in this yard, and three stacks of barley. The wheat when threshed would average about thirty quarters to each stack; the barley, at least forty. Their value to Bathsheba, and indeed to anybody, Oak mentally estimated by the following simple calculation: —
5 x 30 = 150 quarters = 500 L.
3 x 40 = 120 quarters = 250 L.
Total . . 750 L.
Seven hundred and fifty pounds in the divinest form that money can wear — that of necessary food for man and beast: should the risk be run of deteriorating this bulk of corn to less than half its value, because of the instability of a woman? “Never, if I can prevent it!” said Gabriel.
Such was the argument that Oak set outwardly before him. But man, even to himself, is a palimpsest, having an ostensible writing, and another beneath the lines. It is possible that there was this golden legend under the utilitarian one: “I will help to my last effort the woman I have loved so dearly.”
He went back to the barn to endeavour to obtain assistance for covering the ricks that very night. All was silent within, and he would have passed on in the belief that the party had broken up, had not a dim light, yellow as saffron by contrast with the greenish whiteness outside, streamed through a knot-hole in the folding doors.
Gabriel looked in. An unusual picture met his eye.
The candles suspended among the evergreens had burnt down to their sockets, and in some cases the leaves tied about them were scorched. Many of the lights had quite gone out, others smoked and stank, grease dropping from them upon the floor. Here, under the table, and leaning against forms and chairs in every conceivable attitude except the perpendicular, were the wretched persons of all the work- folk, the hair of their heads at such low levels being suggestive of mops and brooms. In the midst of these shone red and distinct the figure of Sergeant Troy, leaning back in a chair. Coggan was on his back, with his mouth open, huzzing forth snores, as were several others; the united breathings of the horizonal assemblage forming a subdued roar like London from a distance. Joseph Poorgrass was curled round in the fashion of a hedge-hog, apparently in attempts to present the least possible portion of his surface to the air; and behind him was dimly visible an unimportant remnant of William Smallbury. The glasses and cups still stood upon the table, a water-jug being overturned, from which a small rill, after tracing its course with marvellous precision down the centre of the long table, fell into the neck of the unconscious Mark Clark, in a steady, monotonous drip, like the dripping of a stalactite in a cave.
Gabriel glanced hopelessly at the group, which, with one or two exceptions, composed all the able-bodied men upon the farm. He saw at once that if the ricks were to be saved that night, or even the next morning, he must save them with his own hands.
A faint “ting-ting” resounded from under Coggan’s waistcoat. It was Coggan’s watch striking the hour of two.
Oak went to the recumbent form of Matthew Moon, who usually undertook the rough thatching of the home-stead, and shook him. The shaking was without effect.
Gabriel shouted in his ear, “where’s your thatching-beetle and rick-stick and spars?”
“Under the staddles,” said Moon, mechanically, with the unconscious promptness of a medium.
Gabriel let go his head, and it dropped upon the floor like a bowl. He then went to Susan Tall’s husband.
“Where’s the key of the granary?”
No answer. The question was repeated, with the same result. To be shouted to at night was evidently less of a novelty to Susan Tall’s husband than to Matthew Moon. Oak flung down Tall’s head into the corner again and turned away.
To be just, the men were not greatly to blame for this painful and demoralizing termination to the evening’s entertainment. Sergeant Troy had so strenuously insisted, glass in hand, that drinking should be the bond of their union, that those who wished to refuse hardly liked to be so unmannerly under the circumstances. Having from their youth up been entirely unaccustomed to any liquor stronger than cider or mild ale, it was no wonder that they had succumbed, one and all, with extraordinary uniformity, after the lapse of about an hour.
Gabriel was greatly depressed. This debauch boded ill for that wilful and fascinating mistress whom the faithful man even now felt within him as the embodiment of all that was sweet and bright and hopeless.
He put out the expiring lights, that the barn might not be endangered, closed the door upon the men in their deep and oblivious sleep, and went again into the lone night. A hot breeze, as if breathed from the parted lips of some dragon about to swallow the globe, fanned him from the south, while directly opposite in the north rose a grim misshapen body of cloud, in the very teeth of the wind. So unnaturally did it rise that one could fancy it to be lifted by machinery from below. Meanwhile the faint cloudlets had flown back into the south-east corner of the sky, as if in terror of the large cloud, like a young brood gazed in upon by some monster.
Going on to the village, Oak flung a small stone against the window of Laban Tall’s bedroom, expecting Susan to open it; but nobody stirred. He went round to the back door, which had been left unfastened for Laban’s entry, and passed in to the foot of the stair-case.
“Mrs. Tall, I’ve come for the key of the granary, to get at the rick-cloths,” said Oak, in a stentorian voice.
“Is that you?” said Mrs. Susan Tall, half awake.
“Yes,” said Gabriel.
“Come along to bed, do, you drawlatching rogue — keeping a body awake like this!”
“It isn’t Laban — ’tis Gabriel Oak. I want the key of the granary.”
“Gabriel! What in the name of fortune did you pretend to be Laban for?”
“I didn’t. I thought you meant —-”
“Yes you did! what do you want here?”
“The key of the granary.”
“Take it then. ‘Tis on the nail. People coming disturbing women at this time of night ought —-”
Gabriel took the key, without waiting to hear the conclusion of the tirade. Ten minutes later his lonely figure might have been seen dragging four large water-proof coverings across the yard, and soon two of these heaps of treasure in grain were covered snug — two cloths to each. Two hundred pounds were secured. Three wheat-stacks remained open, and there were no more cloths. Oak looked under the staddles and found a fork. He mounted the third pile of wealth and began operating, adopting the plan of sloping the upper sheaves one over the other; and, in addition, filling the interstices with the material of some untied sheaves.
So far all was well. By this hurried contrivance Bathsheba’s property in wheat was safe for at any rate a week or two, provided always that there was not much wind.
Next came the barley. This it was only possible to protect by systematic thatching. Time went on, and the moon vanished not to reappear. It was the farewell of the ambassador previous to war. The night had a haggard look, like a sick thing; and there came finally an utter expiration of air from the whole heaven in the form of a slow breeze, which might have been likened to a death. And now nothing was heard in the yard but the dull thuds of the beetle which drove in the spars, and the rustle of thatch in the intervals.
THE STORM — THE TWO TOGETHER
A LIGHT flapped over the scene, as if reflected from phosphorescent wings crossing the sky, and a rumble filled the air. It was the first move of the approaching storm.
The second peal was noisy, with comparatively little visible lightning. Gabriel saw a candle shining in Bathsheba’s bedroom, and soon a shadow swept to and fro upon the blind.
Then there came a third flash. Manoeuvres of a most extraordinary kind were going on in the vast firmamental hollows overhead. The lightning now was the colour of silver, and gleamed in the heavens like a mailed army. Rumbles became rattles. Gabriel from his elevated position could see over the landscape at least half-a-dozen miles in front. Every hedge, bush, and tree was distinct as in a line engraving. In a paddock in the same direction was a herd of heifers, and the forms of these were visible at this moment in the act of galloping about in the wildest and maddest confusion, flinging their heels and tails high into the air, their heads to earth. A poplar in the immediate fore-ground was like an ink stroke on burnished tin. Then the picture vanished, leaving the darkness so intense that Gabriel worked entirely by feeling with his hands.
He had stuck his ricking-rod, or poniard, as it was indifferently called — a long iron lance, polished by handling — into the stack, used to support the sheaves instead of the support called a groom used on houses. A blue light appeared in the zenith, and in some indescribable manner flickered down near the top of the rod. It was the fourth of the larger flashes. A moment later and there was a smack — smart, clear, and short, Gabriel felt his position to be anything but a safe one, and he resolved to descend.
Not a drop of rain had fallen as yet. He wiped his weary brow, and looked again at the black forms of the unprotected stacks. Was his life so valuable to him after all? What were his prospects that he should be so chary of running risk, when important and urgent labour could not be carried on without such risk? He resolved to stick to the stack. However, he took a precaution. Under the staddles was a long tethering chain, used to prevent the escape of errant horses. This he carried up the ladder, and sticking his rod through the clog at one end, allowed the other end of the chain to trail upon the ground The spike attached to it he drove in. Under the shadow of this extemporized lightning conductor he felt himself comparatively safe.
Before Oak had laid his hands upon his tools again out leapt the fifth flash, with the spring of a serpent and the shout of a fiend. It was green as an emerald, and the reverberation was stunning. What was this the light revealed to him? In the open ground before him, as he looked over the ridge of the rick, was a dark and apparently female form. Could it be that of the only venturesome woman in the parish — Bathsheba? The form moved on a step: then he could see no more.
“Is that you, ma’am?” said Gabriel to the darkness.
“Who is there?” said the voice of Bathsheba.
“Gabriel. I am on the rick, thatching.”
“Oh, Gabriel! — and are you? I have come about them. The weather awoke me, and I thought of the corn. I am so distressed about it — can we save it anyhow? I cannot find my husband. Is he with you?”
“He is not here.”
“Do you know where he is?”
“Asleep in the barn.”
“He promised that the stacks should be seen to, and now they are all neglected! Can I do anything to help? Liddy is afraid to come out. Fancy finding you here at such an hour! Surely I can do something?”
“You can bring up some reed-sheaves to me, one by one, ma’am; if you are not afraid to come up the ladder in the dark,” said Gabriel. “Every moment is precious now, and that would save a good deal of time. It is not very dark when the lightning has been gone a bit.”
“I’ll do anything!” she said, resolutely. She instantly took a sheaf upon her shoulder, clambered up close to his heels, placed it behind the rod, and descended for another. At her third ascent the rick suddenly brightened with the brazen glare of shining majolica — every knot in every straw was visible. On the slope in front of him appeared two human shapes, black as jet. The rick lost its sheen — the shapes vanished. Gabriel turned his head. It had been the sixth flash which had come from the east behind him, and the two dark forms on the slope had been the shadows of himself and Bathsheba.
Then came the peal. It hardly was credible that such a heavenly light could be the parent of such a diabolical sound.
“How terrible!” she exclaimed, and clutched him by the sleeve. Gabriel turned, and steadied her on her aerial perch by holding her arm. At the same moment, while he was still reversed in his attitude, there was more light, and he saw, as it were, a copy of the tall poplar tree on the hill drawn in black on the wall of the barn. It was the shadow of that tree, thrown across by a secondary flash in the west.
The next flare came. Bathsheba was on the ground now, shouldering another sheaf, and she bore its dazzle without flinching — thunder and all — and again ascended with the load. There was then a silence everywhere for four or five minutes, and the crunch of the spars, as Gabriel hastily drove them in, could again be distinctly heard. He thought the crisis of the storm had passed. But there came a burst of light.
“Hold on!” said Gabriel, taking the sheaf from her shoulder, and grasping her arm again.
Heaven opened then, indeed. The flash was almost too novel for its inexpressibly dangerous nature to be at once realized, and they could only comprehend the magnificence of its beauty. It sprang from east, west, north, south, and was a perfect dance of death. The forms of skeletons appeared in the air, shaped with blue fire for bones — dancing, leaping, striding, racing around, and mingling altogether in unparalleled confusion. With these were intertwined undulating snakes of green, and behind these was a broad mass of lesser light. Simultaneously came from every part of the tumbling sky what may be called a shout; since, though no shout ever came near it, it was more of the nature of a shout than of anything else earthly. In the meantime one of the grisly forms had alighted upon the point of Gabriel’s rod, to run invisibly down it, down the chain, and into the earth. Gabriel was almost blinded, and he could feel Bathsheba’s warm arm tremble in his hand — a sensation novel and thrilling enough; but love, life, everything human, seemed small and trifling in such close juxtaposition with an infuriated universe.
Oak had hardly time to gather up these impressions into a thought, and to see how strangely the red feather of her hat shone in this light, when the tall tree on the hill before mentioned seemed on fire to a white heat, and a new one among these terrible voices mingled with the last crash of those preceding. It was a stupefying blast, harsh and pitiless, and it fell upon their ears in a dead, flat blow, without that reverberation which lends the tones of a drum to more distant thunder. By the lustre reflected from every part of the earth and from the wide domical scoop above it, he saw that the tree was sliced down the whole length of its tall, straight stem, a huge riband of bark being apparently flung off. The other portion remained erect, and revealed the bared surface as a strip of white down the front. The lightning had struck the tree. A sulphurous smell filled the air; then all was silent, and black as a cave in Hinnom.
“We had a narrow escape!” said Gabriel, hurriedly. “You had better go down.”
Bathsheba said nothing; but he could distinctly hear her rhythmical pants, and the recurrent rustle of the sheaf beside her in response to her frightened pulsations. She descended the ladder, and, on second thoughts, he followed her. The darkness was now impenetrable by the sharpest vision. They both stood still at the bottom, side by side. Bathsheba appeared to think only of the weather — Oak thought only of her just then. At last he said —
“The storm seems to have passed now, at any rate.”
“I think so too,” said Bathsheba. “Though there are multitudes of gleams, look!”
The sky was now filled with an incessant light, frequent repetition melting into complete continuity, as an unbroken sound results from the successive strokes on a gong.
“Nothing serious,” said he. “I cannot understand no rain falling. But Heaven be praised, it is all the better for us. I am now going up again.”
“Gabriel, you are kinder than I deserve! I will stay and help you yet. Oh, why are not some of the others here!”
“They would have been here if they could,” said Oak, in a hesitating way.
“O, I know it all — all,” she said, adding slowly: “They are all asleep in the barn, in a drunken sleep, and my husband among them. That’s it, is it not? Don’t think I am a timid woman and can’t endure things.”
“I am not certain,” said Gabriel. “I will go and see.”
He crossed to the barn, leaving her there alone. He looked through the chinks of the door. All was in total darkness, as he had left it, and there still arose, as at the former time, the steady buzz of many snores.
He felt a zephyr curling about his cheek, and turned. It was Bathsheba’s breath — she had followed him, and was looking into the same chink.
He endeavoured to put off the immediate and painful subject of their thoughts by remarking gently, “If you’ll come back again, miss — ma’am, and hand up a few more; it would save much time.”
Then Oak went back again, ascended to the top, stepped off the ladder for greater expedition, and went on thatching. She followed, but without a sheaf.
“Gabriel,” she said, in a strange and impressive voice.
Oak looked up at her. She had not spoken since he left the barn. The soft and continual shimmer of the dying lightning showed a marble face high against the black sky of the opposite quarter. Bathsheba was sitting almost on the apex of the stack, her feet gathered up beneath her, and resting on the top round of the ladder.
“Yes, mistress,” he said.
“I suppose you thought that when I galloped away to Bath that night it was on purpose to be married?”
“I did at last — not at first,” he answered, somewhat surprised at the abruptness with which this new subject was broached.
“And others thought so, too?”
“And you blamed me for it?”
“Well — a little.”
“I thought so. Now, I care a little for your good opinion, and I want to explain something — I have longed to do it ever since I returned, and you looked so gravely at me. For if I were to die — and I may die soon — it would be dreadful that you should always think mistakenly of me. Now, listen.”
Gabriel ceased his rustling.
“I went to Bath that night in the full intention of breaking off my engagement to Mr. Troy. It was owing to circumstances which occurred after I got there that — that we were married. Now, do you see the matter in a new light?”
“I do — somewhat.”
“I must, I suppose, say more, now that I have begun. And perhaps it’s no harm, for you are certainly under no delusion that I ever loved you, or that I can have any object in speaking, more than that object I have mentioned. Well, I was alone in a strange city, and the horse was lame. And at last I didn’t know what to do. I saw, when it was too late, that scandal might seize hold of me for meeting him alone in that way. But I was coming away, when he suddenly said he had that day seen a woman more beautiful than I, and that his constancy could not be counted on unless I at once became his…. And I was grieved and troubled —-” She cleared her voice, and waited a moment, as if to gather breath. “And then, between jealousy and distraction, I married him!” she whispered with desperate impetuosity.
Gabriel made no reply.
“He was not to blame, for it was perfectly true about — about his seeing somebody else,” she quickly added. “And now I don’t wish for a single remark from you upon the subject — indeed, I forbid it. I only wanted you to know that misunderstood bit of my history before a time comes when you could never know it. — You want some more sheaves?”
She went down the ladder, and the work proceeded. Gabriel soon perceived a languor in the movements of his mistress up and down, and he said to her, gently as a mother —
“I think you had better go indoors now, you are tired. I can finish the rest alone. If the wind does not change the rain is likely to keep off.”
“If I am useless I will go,” said Bathsheba, in a flagging cadence. “But O, if your life should be lost!”
“You are not useless; but I would rather not tire you longer. You have done well.”
“And you better!” she said, gratefully. “Thank you for your devotion, a thousand times, Gabriel! Goodnight — I know you are doing your very best for me.”
She diminished in the gloom, and vanished, and he heard the latch of the gate fall as she passed through. He worked in a reverie now, musing upon her story, and upon the contradictoriness of that feminine heart which had caused her to speak more warmly to him to-night than she ever had done whilst unmarried and free to speak as warmly as she chose.
He was disturbed in his meditation by a grating noise from the coach-house. It was the vane on the roof turning round, and this change in the wind was the signal for a disastrous rain.
RAIN — ONE SOLITARY MEETS ANOTHER
IT was now five o’clock, and the dawn was promising to break in hues of drab and ash.
The air changed its temperature and stirred itself more vigorously. Cool breezes coursed in transparent eddies round Oak’s face. The wind shifted yet a point or two and blew stronger. In ten minutes every wind of heaven seemed to be roaming at large. Some of the thatching on the wheat- stacks was now whirled fantastically aloft, and had to be replaced and weighted with some rails that lay near at hand. This done, Oak slaved away again at the barley. A huge drop of rain smote his face, the wind snarled round every corner, the trees rocked to the bases of their trunks, and the twigs clashed in strife. Driving in spars at any point and on any system, inch by inch he covered more and more safely from ruin this distracting impersonation of seven hundred pounds. The rain came on in earnest, and Oak soon felt the water to be tracking cold and clammy routes down his back. Ultimately he was reduced well-nigh to a homogeneous sop, and the dyes of his clothes trickled down and stood in a pool at the foot of the ladder. The rain stretched obliquely through the dull atmosphere in liquid spines, unbroken in continuity between their beginnings in the clouds and their points in him.
Oak suddenly remembered that eight months before this time he had been fighting against fire in the same spot as desperately as he was fighting against water now — and for a futile love of the same woman. As for her —- But Oak was generous and true, and dismissed his reflections.
It was about seven o’clock in the dark leaden morning when Gabriel came down from the last stack, and thankfully exclaimed, “It is done!” He was drenched, weary, and sad, and yet not so sad as drenched and weary, for he was cheered by a sense of success in a good cause.
Faint sounds came from the barn, and he looked that way. Figures stepped singly and in pairs through the doors — all walking awkwardly, and abashed, save the foremost, who wore a red jacket, and advanced with his hands in his pockets, whistling. The others shambled after with a conscience- stricken air: the whole procession was not unlike Flaxman’s group of the suitors tottering on towards the infernal regions under the conduct of Mercury. The gnarled shapes passed into the village, Troy, their leader, entering the farmhouse. Not a single one of them had turned his face to the ricks, or apparently bestowed one thought upon their condition.
Soon Oak too went homeward, by a different route from